New Yorker: Silicon Valley and Politics

 

Change the World

Silicon Valley transfers its slogans – and its money – to the realm of politics

By George Packer, May 27 2013.

Mark Zuckerberg, in his op-ed announcing FWD.us, wrote, “In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country. A knowledge economy can scale further, create better jobs, and provide a higher quality of living for everyone in our nation.” Zuckerberg described himself as the great-grandson of immigrants, and the beneficiary of national policies that have created equal opportunity and upward mobility across generations.

“Everyone in FWD.us hopes it will go beyond immigration, over time,” Reid Hoffman said. Other possible issues include education reform and spending on scientific research. “But, as with an entrepreneurial start-up, if we can’t demonstrate that we can do something good about this problem, then what use are we to the other ones?”

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not. Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings. Marc Andreessen predicted that conflicts over issues like privacy, intellectual property, and monopolies will bring a period of increased tension between the Valley and other sectors of society, along with new government intervention. Brian Goldsmith, who has known Green since college, and who now runs an online investment start-up called PubVest, said, “If this new generation of smart, wealthy, successful tech leaders want to make a difference in terms of policy, it’s the right idea to leave their cool headquarters and gorgeous campuses and actually engage. They have a lot to bring to the table, and they may also learn the limits of their power and influence. I think it’s healthy that they’ve decided to branch out and actually get involved in the political process the way that other industries and corporations do.”

FWD.us has got off to a rough start—rougher than Facebook did. Rather than bringing fresh ideas to the project of organizing Americans and their elected leaders behind immigration reform, the group has hired veteran Washington operatives from both parties, who, following their standard practice, are spending Silicon Valley money on harsh and cynical political ads. The campaign attempts to bolster politicians who support immigration reform even though they represent states where the idea is unpopular. One ad, intended to cover Senator Lindsey Graham’s right flank, in South Carolina, attacks Obama’s health-care law; another, on behalf of Mark Begich, the Alaska senator, endorses oil drilling and a natural-gas pipeline there.

This first high-profile foray into hardball national politics has upset a number of people in Silicon Valley. The venture capitalist Vinod Khosla tweeted, “Will FWD.us prostitute climate destruction and other values to get a few engineers hired & get immigration reform?” Some early members of the group—David Sacks, of Yammer; Elon Musk, of Tesla Motors—have withdrawn. Amid the uproar, Zuckerberg and Green have been silent.

The South Carolina ad began airing in late April. It was made by a FWD.us shell organization called Americans for a Conservative Direction. Crude graphics are combined with footage of Graham attacking Obama. “ ‘Change you can believe in,’ after this health-care-bill debacle, has now become an empty slogan,” he says. “And it’s really been replaced by seedy Chicago politics, when you think about it.” The ad doesn’t embody the spirit of “innovation” or of “disruption.” But if Silicon Valley’s idea of itself as a force for irresistible progress is running up against the unlovely reality of current American politics, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might mean that the industry is growing up.

For complete article, see George Packer, Change the World, The New Yorker, May 27 2013.

(Emphasis added)